Long exposure photography is some of my absolute favorite work to produce. There is such a unique quality about it. And, when viewing long exposure photography, you're viewing so much more than just the scene itself. At any longer shutter speed, you're viewing time at that scene. You're seeing a cumulation of what was going on at that scene for a given amount of time. In these instances, your photo is representing something in that scene that the human eye couldn't have witnessed at least not without some imagination.
That being true, some scenes lend themselves much better to long exposure photography than others and one of those scenes is the beach. There is so much to be offered in terms of long exposure photography when you're out on the coast. You have moving waves, and rock solid objects (piers, rocks, shoreline etc) all coming together in sometimes peaceful and sometimes absolutely chaotic ways. Then there are the skies. At the beach, there is huge opportunity for wind to be moving the skies in a way that creates unique images. The beach doesn't come without it's fair share of challenges though. So, here are 4 simple steps to better long exposure photography at the beach.
1. Lock it down - Hopefully, if you're trying long exposure photography, you've already realized the importance of a tripod. But if not, get one. Immediately. Like before you try another shot. Anything that moves in a long exposure photograph comes out blurry. So, if the entire scenes moves, by way of the camera moving, the shot is ruined. Here's the important part - know that sometimes a cheap wiggly tripod can almost be worse than handholding your camera. Don't skimp here. This doesn't mean you need to buy a luxury or incredibly expensive one but don't just buy the cheapest one you find. Expect to spend between $120 and $350 for a decent one. This will help you keep the camera still to ensure that the non-moving elements in your photo are as sharp as can be.
2. Sink it in the sand - More than half of my long exposure photography is done in a place where I at least have my ankles and the legs of my tripod in the water or at least in a place where a particularly high wave can reach me. Being close to the shoreline (or even out past it) lets me get an angle that is different than where most other people may shoot from. Sometimes it allows the action of the waves to fill a different or more dynamic part of the image or lets me get closer to an object out in the water to give a more dynamic composition to whatever it is that I am photographing. Here's the deal, things sink in wet sand. Especially sand that isn't consistently underwater but instead has a wave or two wash over it every couple of minutes. The solution? Get your tripod out in that area and gently push the legs down into the sand as a wave goes by or recedes. After an inch or two of sinking, your tripod will get to a secure place where it won't sink anymore should another wave pass during your exposure. The movement is subtle so if you skip this step, you may not realized that your tripod sank during the exposure until your home and looking at your shiny new photo on the computer. It's not worth ruining a shot to learn. Sink the tripod.
3. Darken the Scene - A neutral density filter is an ideal investment for long exposure photography. And, there are a couple of reasons for this. First, it obviously allows the camera to utilize longer shutter speeds for the same scene. Also, it allows other less than idea camera settings to be avoided. For instance, my D800 has ISO capabilities lower than ISO 100 but they are non-native and have the potential to introduce unnecessary noise into the shot. If I didn't have an ND filter but wanted a longer exposure, I could utilize these settings but avoiding them is ideal. This can also be said for my aperture. I know that the sharpest point of my lens falls somewhere between F8 & F11. But, if I didn't have an ND filter, I may have to use a higher aperture such as F16 or F22 to lengthen my shutter. Having an ND filter allows me to get the ISO I prefer along with the Aperture I want and still have a longer shutter speed. However, here's something else you may not have thought of: A neutral density filter allows for long exposure photography at different or new times of day. Think of it this way, everyone who wants to do some long exposure photography but doesn't have an ND filter is forced to wait till the light allows that type of photography. (typically before sunrise or after sunset) Because the light is very soft and indirect during these times of day, to a certain extent, the lighting is the same in the vast majority of those photographers images. However, having a ND filter could allow you to shoot under sunlight, and introduce much stronger contrast and tones to your images. This is great in terms of shooting a similar scene to other photographers but introducing a more dynamic feel to the image. In addition to this, when limited to shooting only in early morning or late evening, you are forced into a lighting scenario that is usually changing very quickly. This can pose a problem for a photographer who is calculating exposure times for long exposure photography. Having an ND filter lets you work in more constant lighting conditions that may not be changing as quickly. This allows for more consistent calculation and exposures.
4. Know how to spot the issues - What I have found is that when I understand long exposure photography well enough, I am better prepared to spot and correct for any issues that may be going on in the scene. This can be applied in a number of ways. For instance, when using a neutral density filter, you are sometimes cutting the amount of light entering the front of the lens by such a significant amount that light entering the camera from other places can have a more pronounced effect on your photo. Knowing how to spot even the slightest light leak while out shooting can help you better react to it and quickly take another photo without one. (By the way, light leaks most often occur from light entering the viewfinder of the camera but can also happen through the focus window of an old lens, or a bad seal between a particular lens and camera or even as a result of light bouncing around in between several layers of filters before entering the lens) It also goes for things like wind. Being able to recognize the amount of wind coming into contact with your camera and know the potential for camera shake as a result can help you correct for it by blocking the wind, turning the tripod more into the wind etc. Another one that I get a lot is sea spray. When you're close to the waves on a windy day, most likely you'll get spray on the front of the lens. Be paying attention to the amount. If not, you could get home and realize that half your shots are soft (if not ruined) because you weren't watching and get way too much water on the front of your lens.
These are just a few of the things that I have learned while out doing some long exposure photography at the beach. Most of these I have learned by being the one who got all the way home and then realized the issue that was going on without me even noticing. The more you notice and the more detailed you can be while in the field, the smaller the chance that some sort of issue could be ruining your images without you even knowing.
Have you come across any of these on your own? Feel free to share some other tips etc in the comments and maybe I'll add them to the list.